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Matt Kamen speaks with producer Katsuhiro Harada about Tekken’s 20th birthday.

For a media franchise coming up on two decades old, Namco Bandai’s Tekken has proven remarkably consistent. From the first game, released for the original PlayStation in December 1994, the 3D fighting games have enjoyed near-universal praise and cultivated a dedicated community of players. In fact, any mis-steps have been largely found in anime or movie spin-offs rather than the games themselves – the less said about 1998 OVA Tekken: The Motion Picture and 2010 live-action movie Tekken, the better, though 2011’s CGI Tekken: Blood Vengeance at least benefits from being in continuity with the games.

The strength of Tekken’s community was on series producer Katsuhiro Harada’s mind when we spoke. “You know, Tekken is coming up on its twentieth anniversary, and back then, the internet wasn’t anywhere near as prevalent as it is today,” Harada reflected. “With Tekken 3, sales were just tremendous, and we started to get a real fan base. Then, maybe with Tekken Tag Tournament, they formed the community more and we were able to listen to their opinions and see what they want from the next instalment. It’s much easier now, and there is a profound impact on the franchise itself now.”

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Harada’s interactions with fans aren’t limited to the online world – he’s frequently found criss-crossing the globe, appearing at conventions or fighting tournaments such as EVO, rarely breaking his ‘character’ as trash-talking, adversarial creator. “EVO is just one example of that very hardcore audience,” he said. “We go to championships around the world and get to interact with the fans directly, so what they say definitely influences what we do.”

The latest addition to the family is the recently launched Tekken Revolution. Snuck out onto PS3 mere days after its surprise announcement in June, the game marks the first time the series has experimented with the free-to-play model. Players get to experience the full Tekken game engine, with solo Arcade mode, online versus play, championships, rankings and more. The trade-off is a smaller roster – though more characters are being added – and each play or online challenge requires credits, which replenish over time or can be bought.

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Free-to-play games are huge in Japan, albeit on mobile devices rather than consoles. However, Harada’s reasoning behind experimenting with one of the world’s biggest gaming brands was more to do with getting new players to try Tekken for the first time. “In the current conditions, to have someone interested in your game and actually be willing to pay, £45, $60, that’s kind of a barrier. We thought, ‘maybe if you have someone who tries it, they might find they like it a lot’ – we wanted to remove the barriers. Maybe some of them will think it’s not their thing but there’s going to be quite a few of them who’ll be really interested in it – hooked! I guess you could do a demo of the game, but we really wanted to have a full version that people could actually have the full experience and help them decide if they liked it or not.”

Players seem to have warmly received the game too. “It’s been pretty positive – overwhelmingly positive, actually,” Harada said. “We’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of people, on Twitter especially, who have mentioned it’s the first time they’ve played Tekken, or they’ve come back after a long absence. If you play the game online, you can tell there’s a whole new group playing.”

But why the secrecy prior to the game’s release? “I first thought about doing Tekken Revolution around October 2012 and started development shortly after. But if you announce it, put it out there in the public, then people like Hayashi-san [lead producer on rival fighter, Dead Or Alive], he’ll often copy me!” Harada teased. “If we say we’re going to do it, then [everyone’s] going to have to rush it, and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to keep it on the downlow and then, suddenly, it’s there!”

Revolution isn’t intended to replace ‘full size’ Tekken games though, and fans of standalone games have a lot to look forward to. Chiefly, Harada teases the long-awaited Tekken X Street Fighter. “There’s been a few rumours out there that the title’s been cancelled but that’s not true,” he clarified. “There hasn’t been much time since [Capom’s] Street Fighter X Tekken was released and there’s still going to be tournaments like EVO around that. As developers, we would like to make a title for next generation systems but [we also] want to release a title for machines people actually have. It’s hard to decide. But it’s much better if people are quite surprised by these kind of [announcements], right? It’s much more fun to release it at a time when no-one’s expecting it!”

Twenty years in, and Harada is still looking to surprise his audience. Japan’s games industry could do with more like him.

Tekken: Blood Vengeance is out now in the UK through Manga Entertainment

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